LeVar Burton on Remaking 'Roots': 'My Initial Reaction Was, Why?'

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  • LeVar Burton
    LeVar Burton
    American actor

History's announcement yesterday that it plans to remake the legendary 1977 miniseries "Roots" inspired some passionate reactions from TV fans... including one from original star LeVar Burton.

Burton, who played Kunta Kinte in the original, was rather blunt with New York magazine: “My initial reaction was, Why?” The question is understandable, given the cultural impact of the original “Roots.” The epic historical adaptation of author Alex Haley’s investigation into his ancestral bloodline was a riveting exploration of slavery that is just as powerful today as it was in 1977.

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Reaction on Twitter is largely skeptical, with tweet-peeps reverberating Burton’s question:

That said, the answer to Burton’s question may have something to do with the almighty dollar. Consider the commercial and critical success of History's recent miniseries “Hatfields & McCoys” and "The Bible." As Syracuse University media scholar Robert Thompson tells us, "these kind of historical miniseries are doing really, really well for them. It means that they're going to go, 'OK, what other historical miniseries can we do?' ‘The Bible’ was an obvious one, and ‘Roots’ was a pretty obvious one as well. You've got the highest recognition branding you can get in television. ‘Roots’ is pre-sold."

Plus, slavery is in the zeitgeist right now, thanks to the buzz surrounding Oscar contender “12 Years a Slave.” Time's TV critic James Poniewozik also noted the popularity of last year's “Django Unchained,” and said that while it’s a “creepy” thing to think about, “slavery is ‘hot.’”

And the fact that "Roots" is being revived on cable TV is an opportunity to tell the brutal story of slavery from a more gritty (and realistic) perspective, Thompson says. He cites the famous scene of Africans being transported across the sea in slave ships: "For all of the horror of that scene, it was actually a lot milder than it would have actually really been. You would be able to shoot some of the stuff in ways that weren't quite as sanitized as they were in the late '70s.”

With all that said, the original "Roots" is a classic for a reason... and it still holds up. Thompson screens the first two hours of "Roots" in a class he teaches, and estimates that 90% of the students have never seen the original: “When I show them those first two hours, they are genuinely, visibly moved... really blown away by it. I know it's a clunky old '70s show, but it holds up amazingly well. That scene where Kunta Kinte gets taken is still a very powerful, powerful scene.”

What do you think about the "Roots” remake? Will you watch the new version... or stick with the original?